Teachers union asks judge to block new Kentucky law barring payroll deductions to pay union dues

by Liam Niemeyer, Kentucky Lantern

FRANKFORT — Kentucky’s largest teachers union representing thousands of educators throughout the state is asking a judge to temporarily block a new law that prohibits the union from collecting dues through payroll deductions. 

The Kentucky Education Association (KEA) sued the state last month asking for Senate Bill 7 to be struck down as unconstitutional and is now asking for a temporary injunction to block the law while it’s being heard by the state courts. 

SB 7, sponsored by Sen. Robby Mills, R-Henderson, prevents public employers from assisting with “any labor organization, person, or other legal entity with the collection of dues, fees, assessments, or other charges” or the collection of personal information for labor unions. It levies fines of up to $1,000 on unions or public employers who violate the law. 

At a Monday court hearing before Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd, attorney Amy Cubbage representing KEA said because SB 7 had an emergency clause — meaning it went into effect in late March immediately after the GOP-dominated legislature overrode a veto by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear — the union did not have time to adapt to the new law.

“There was no lead time here for any of the parties to plan and move people to these alternative payment methods,” Cubbage said. “When people have been able to rely on a payment method for 50 years and that’s been taken away, it does cause a harm. It does take time to rework that contractual arrangement.”

In testimony at the court hearing, KEA Executive Director Mary Ruble said before SB 7 became law approximately 90% of the union’s members paid monthly dues through automatic deductions in cooperation with a public school district. The other methods of payment include using credit cards, direct transfers from bank accounts, and direct billing where members pay dues with cash or check. 

“We have not received any dues collected by payroll deduction for April and don’t expect to receive any for May, June, July, August, September, etcetera,” Ruble said. 

KEA has about 23,500 active members and at least 17,000 retired members, she said.

Ruble said the union has been reaching out to teachers individually since the passage of SB 7 to have teachers switch to a new payment option such as credit cards and that the labor organization’s efforts have almost solely been focused on tackling the issue. 

A lawyer for the Kentucky Education and Labor Cabinet, tasked with enforcing the new law, said the state agency hadn’t received any allegations of violations of the new law and that it wasn’t enforcing it because of the pending litigation. 

Beshear in his veto of SB 7 said the measure could also impact other public sector unions in occupations beyond education, by conflicting with federal rules on  collective bargaining, thus putting public transit systems in Lexington, Louisville and Covington at risk of losing  more than $76 million in federal funding. 

Mills, the sponsor of SB7, has previously said the legislation was about stopping “the practice of public employee unions using taxpayer-funded payroll systems to collect political contributions from members.”

Republican Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s office intervened in the court case opposing the temporary injunction being granted, with an attorney for the office saying the union’s “financial harm is totally recoverable” through other payment methods beyond payroll deduction. 

“I see very little difference in convenience between looking at your bank account every month, and looking at your paystub, in which you’re still going to be able to see the automatic transfer of the money,” said Assistant Attorney General Marc Manley.

Attorneys for KEA have argued that SB 7 is unconstitutional in part because it violates the equal protection of the law guaranteed by the Kentucky Constitution, by exempting  unions for law enforcement, jail and prison staff and firefighters from the new law. 

Rep. Josh Bray, R-Mount Vernon, who spoke in favor of SB 7 on the House floor, said the “hazardous nature” of some occupations such as law enforcement was the reasoning for why such unions were excluded from the law, which Manley reiterated. 

“Due to the hazardous nature of these other professions and the danger that can come about, that there could be a risk of substantial injury or maybe even death,” Manley said. “So some of those aspects of that type of profession could make financial transactions, quickly changing financial transactions more difficult.” 

Cubbage pushed back on that argument, specifically mentioning a Missouri law that had put new restrictions on collective bargaining for public sector unions that was struck down because the law excluded some unions from the restrictions. 

“We actually have SROs, school resource officers, who are members of KEA. So if they are considered to be a hazardous occupation, I believe they qualify for this … they could lose the benefit of payroll deductions from the KEA.” 

Cubbage also said there was “no distinction” between unions for teachers and law enforcement officers in that both have engaged in political speech through political action committees. 

Plaintiffs and defendants plan to file responses on whether Shepherd should issue a temporary injunction over the next week.

Kentucky Lantern is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kentucky Lantern maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jamie Lucke for questions: info@kentuckylantern.com. Follow Kentucky Lantern on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo: Kentucky Education Association Executive Director Mary Ruble testified that about 90% of the union’s members had paid their dues through payroll deductions before the new law took effect. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)